Thursday, July 14, 2016

GREY GARDENS • Max & Louie Productions

In 1975, a documentary by Albert and David Maysles related the story of two cloistered, interdependent, eccentric residents living in a wealthy East Hampton neighborhood. After years of prosperity, the ocean of money slowed to a trickle for Edith "Big Edie" Bouvier Beale and her daughter, Edith "Little Edie" Bouvier Beale (the aunt and first cousin of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis), yet they persevered within the walls of a dilapidated, 28-room mansion named Grey Gardens. Though this once glorious, now filth-ridden estate had become overrun with cats, raccoons, fleas (the filmmakers had to wear flea collars), and had practically no running water, Big and Little Edie remained there, in secluded squalor, for over 50 years. The film won acclaim for its “direct cinema” styled rendering of these two fascinating women, and in 2006, this material was adapted into a musical by Doug Wright (book), Scott Frankel (music) and Michael Korie (lyrics). Max & Louie Productions seems to have gotten all of the right people in all of the right places to make this St. Louis premiere soar.

Having fallen in love with the documentary years ago, I think it’s safe to suggest that your enjoyment of the show will be enhanced by having a familiarity with the original film. So, you know, click here for that. 

Edith Bouvier Beale (Debby Lennon)
and Little Edie (Madeline Purches).
Photo credit: Dan Donovan
After a short prologue, the first act gives us a fictional glimpse into the well-heeled life of the Beales in Grey Gardens’ heyday. It’s 1941 and the Long Island manor is buzzing with activity, getting ready for an extravagant celebration of the engagement of Little Edie (Madeline Purches) to Joseph Kennedy Jr. (Will Bonfiglio), and Big Edie (Debby Lennon) is heading the preparations -- ordering the set-up of chafing dishes, the chilling of vichyssoise and the preening of privets. It soon becomes clear that Lennon and Purches couldn’t have been better cast. This potent duo have impressive vocal chops, and, under Annamaria Pileggi's outstanding direction, depict all of the tricky intricacies of their relationship and mannerisms early on that carry over to the second act credibly and beautifully -- Lennon’s transformation is amazing, and Purches gives you just a hint of instability under a poised exterior.

Little Edie (Madeline Purches),
Edith Bouvier Beale (Debby Lennon)
and George Gould Strong (Terry Meddows)
in the background.
Photo credit: Dan Donovan
Terry Meddows is also on hand as George Gould Strong, Big Edie's kept, gay piano accompanist, who plays referee between the women when Little Edie begs her mom to hew down the number of songs she plans to sing at the gathering, feeding her hunger for the limelight and long-held aspirations of a career in show business. Tom Murray is strong as Big Edie’s imperious father, "Major" Bouvier, and Bonfiglio does some great work as the cautious but enthusiastic groom-to-be. Omega Jones is solid as the starched butler, Brooks Sr., and there are delightful appearances from Carter Eiseman and Phoebe Desilets as the young pair, Lee Bouvier and Jacqueline Bouvier, respectively, interrupting the preparations by begging their aunt Edith to entertain them with a song. A fateful telegram upends the festivities, and that sets up the second act.

Speaking of the second act, there’s a neat trick here -- Little Edie is now played by Lennon -- the first act’s Big Edie, and Big Edie is portrayed by an unyielding Donna Weinsting. Now thirty-two years later, the second act closely mirrors the documentary. Big Edie is now practically bed-ridden, but Weinsting plays her with that same feisty core, now weighed down by the frailties that come with age, while Lennon portrays Little Edie with her eccentricities now full-blown. Despite their poverty, the unabashed quirkiness and poignantly forlorn world of the Beales begs you to laugh with them, as opposed to at them.

“Big” Edith Bouvier Beale (Donna Weinsting)
and Jerry (Will Bonfiglio).
Photo credit: Dan Donovan
Omega Jones who plays the butler in the first act carries over nicely as the easier-going groundskeeper, Brooks Jr. in the second. Bonfiglio also makes a skillful transition from Joe Kennedy Jr. to the Beale’s good-natured layabout handyman, Jerry. Jennifer JC Krajicek’s costumes are spot on, as is Dunsi Dai’s scenic design and Michael Sullivan’s evocative lighting design. Dialect coach Ariel Saul keeps everyone in that distinct Northeastern tone, and the orchestra, under the direction of Neal Richardson, sounds bigger than it is. It's obvious that director Annamaria Pileggi gets this play, extending those silent beats to get the most out of the mounting tensions that hint at the moments to come, along with memorable performances from her talented cast. The numbers "The Five-Fifteen,” "Peas in a Pod,” a foreboding “Will You?,” the wonderfully barefaced "The Revolutionary Costume for Today" (the documentary lovers will adore the reference 'S-T-A-U-N-C-H'), and a haunting "Another Winter in a Summer Town" are standouts.

Jerry (Will Bonfiglio), “Big” Edith Bouvier Beale (Donna Weinsting)
and Little Edie (Debby Lennon).
Photo credit: Dan Donovan
Get tickets, and go see it now. As Little Edie would say, it’s absolutely terrific, honestly.


Book by Doug Wright, based on the 1975 documentary, Grey Gardens
Music by Scott Frankel
Lyrics by Michael Korie
Directed by Annamaria Pileggi
Marvin & Harlene Wool Studio, 2 Millstone Campus Drive Creve Coeur
through July 30 | tickets: $30 - $35
Performances Wednesdays to Saturdays at 8pm, Sundays at 2pm, Saturday July 30, 2pm & 8pm

Brooks Sr. (Omega Jones), Edith Bouvier Beale (Debby Lennon),
Jacqueline “Jackie” Bouvier (Phoebe Desalts),
Lee Bouvier (Carter Eiseman)
and George Gould Strong (Terry Meddows).
Photo credit: Dan Donovan
“Little” Edie Beale/Edith Bouvier Beale: Debby Lennon*
"Big" Edith Bouvier Beale: Donna Weinsting 
Young "Little" Edie Beale: Madeline Purches
Joseph Patrick Kennedy Jr./Jerry: Will Bonfiglio 
J.V. "Major" Bouvier/Norman Vincent Peale: Tom Murray*
George Gould Strong: Terry Meddows* 
Brooks Sr./Brooks Jr.: Omega Jones
Lee Bouvier: Carter Eiseman
Jacqueline “Jackie” Bouvier: Phoebe Desilets

“Big” Edith Bouvier Beale (Donna Weinsting)
and Little Edie (Debby Lennon).

Assistant Director: Anna Richards
Choreographer: Robin Berger
Stage Manager: Claire Stark
Assistant Stage Manager: Kristen Strom
Set Designer: Dunsi Dai
Lighting Designer: Michael Sullivan
Sound Designer: Casey Hunter
Costume Designer: Jennifer JC Krajicek
Wardrobe Head/Wig Master: Emma Bruntrager
Props Designer: Claudia Horn
Dialect Coach: Ariel Saul
Technical Director: Brian Connor
Assistant Technical Director: Martin Moran
Production Manager: Bess Moynihan
Master Electrician: Nathan Schroeder
Lighting Technician: Scott Russell McDonald
Run Crew: Traci Clapper
Run Crew: Wilson Webel
Run Crew: Jimmy Bernatowicz
Lighting Board Operator: Jason Boes
The real life Big and Little Edie Beale.
Managing Director: De Kaplan
Producer/Artistic Director: Stellie Siteman
Program Design: Jen Schmitz

* Denotes member of Actors’ Equity Association, the Union of
Professional Actors and Stage Managers in the United States

Musical Director/Pianist: Neal Richardson
Cello Player: Ethan Edwards
Violinist: Kyle Twomey